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Growing Children, Shrinking Wages: How to Make Child Care Affordable for the Middle Class | Commentary

While 14 million American families have a child younger than school age, child care and preschool are quickly becoming a luxury only the rich can afford. Child care costs exceed nearly every other household expense, and for families with two or more children, child care costs exceed the median rent cost in every state. On average, families pay anywhere from $4,000 to $16,000 per year for a child care center, depending on the geographic location and the age of the child.

And these costs only continue to rise: Between 2001 and 2012, child care costs grew by 24 percent. While child care is getting more expensive for families, earnings for the typical middle class family aren’t budging, as a new report from the Center from American Progress shows. Over the same time frame, income for a median married family with two children was stagnant. For median households overall, income actually dropped while a typical middle class family saw child care costs increase by $2,300.

Worse, there is little indication families are getting their money’s worth in terms of quality child care. On the whole, most child care programs have poor to mediocre quality, and children of color are disproportionately enrolled in lower quality child care and preschool programs.

Compounding the situation is the fact that public programs help only a limited number of mostly low-income families access early childhood programs. Just 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds have access to state preschool programs, and the federal government’s flagship preschool program, Head Start, doesn’t even reach half the eligible population of preschoolers in families living below the poverty level. Furthermore, funding streams for these programs are limited, and these programs don’t always provide the quality needed to support healthy development and school preparation. When families do receive assistance, often it is short-term and insufficient: 1 in 6 eligible children receive child care assistance that is usually temporary and falls well below the tuition cost of most child care centers.

One piece of good news is the House recently passed an update to the Child Care Development Block Grant that will put much-needed standards in place for publicly subsidized child care. While this bill won’t solve all our problems when it comes to helping families afford quality child care, it’s a positive and important step toward making sure that child care paid for with tax dollars is safe and that providers have basic training.

Congress should build on the bipartisan accomplishments of CCDBG and pass legislation that will provide high-quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds; expand and reform the child care subsidy system by providing additional resources to help families access high-quality child care, and ensuring that child care assistance declines gradually as parents earn more money rather than cutting off abruptly; reform the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit by making it refundable and raising the amount that can be claimed to cover more of the actual cost of child care; and expand Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships by building on the initial investment already made and reaching additional children.

The impact of our failure to invest in early childhood programs that support young children and working parents is evident. Many children, especially low-income children of color, miss out on critical early learning experiences. Half of 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in any type of preschool program. Children in families earning more than $75,000 are 50 percent more likely to attend preschool compared to those from families earning below $30,000. By the time they enter school, half of poor children and a quarter of moderate- to high-income children are not ready at kindergarten. Access rates among children of color are event lower, especially Hispanic children, who have the lowest participation rates when compared to African-American, Asian and non-Hispanic white children. Lack of access to quality child care undermines family economic security and undermines their ability to reach or stay in the middle class. Research from North Carolina and New York City shows that one-quarter and one-third of families, respectively, that were on waiting lists for child care assistance lost their job or are unable to work. In Minnesota, one-quarter of families waiting for child care assistance went on public assistance.

High-quality child care and preschool programs can have lasting impacts and are proven to help narrow the school readiness gap, especially for low-income children. High-quality preschool programs in Tulsa and Boston, for example, resulted in up to a year of additional learning for participants. Early childhood programs also improve economic opportunities for parents. Parents who receive child care subsidies, for example, are more likely to attend school and job training programs, equipping them with the skills necessary to thrive in a 21st century economy.

The passage of CCDBG is an encouraging bipartisan accomplishment in a Congress that’s seen all too few of them. But we know that we can’t and shouldn’t stop there — we need to make quality, affordable early childhood programs a reality for all families.

Katie Hamm is the director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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